Inside Africa’s private armies


Private military and security companies: Who controls the guns-for-hire?

It is not the sort of image you expect to find in a UN report: a man in a blue uniform lies hogtied on the ground, his hands and feet secured behind his back, his face covered in ash and bruises.

The 2013 report, on the breaking of an arms embargo in Somalia, detailed the activities of private military companies in that lawless country. The photograph in question was taken at a training camp run by one such firm. The report tells of another trainee bound and beaten to death with rocks.

These and other incidents — physical abuse, arms trafficking, coup plots — point to a murky underworld where private armies operate with little or no accountability, mainly because few international laws regulate the use and behaviour of mercenaries.

Thousands of soldiers of fortune, usually under contract to private military and security companies, are paid to fight proxy wars for governments and to protect companies and NGOs. But do they end conflicts or fuel them? Is this a modern corporate manifestation of the mercenary phenomenon that plagued Africa after its colonisation?

At the end of the cold war, military budgets around the world plummeted as countries no longer saw the need for large standing armies. Between 1987 and 1996 the world’s militaries shrank by more than six million soldiers — from 29 million to 22.7 million — according to Kees Kingma writing for the Bonn International Conversion Center, a research institute focusing on the conversion of military facilities and equipment to civilian use. This decline of official armies had particular relevance for Africa — as unfolding circumstances would show.

As apartheid ended South Africa began to reduce its armed forces. Between 1995 and 2000, the South African National Defence Force (SANDF) declined significantly from 120 000 personnel to about 82 000, according to Kingma. Many of the newly demobilised soldiers found jobs working for private security firms, including the US-based DynCorp, Military Professional Resources, Pacific Architects and Engineers (PAE), and Protection Strategies — all of which were involved in African conflicts.


Puntland Maritime Police Force (PMPF) base in Bosaso.

Several professional army firms found work in Somalia after its government collapsed in 1991. The president of Puntland, a semi-autonomous region in the country’s north-east, hired Saracen International, then a Pretoria-based firm (now Sterling Corporate Services based in the United Arab Emirates) to provide the Puntland Maritime Police Force with military training and equipment to fight maritime piracy. Harsh corporal punishment characterised Saracen’s training camps during May 2010 and February 2011. This included the breaking of hands, the binding and beating of police apprentices, and one death, according to the abovementioned UN report.

Saracen “trainers were expected to act not only as instructors, but as fighters participating in combat operations” — a violation of the arms embargo, said the UN report. The police force that Saracen trained reported directly to the Puntland president, which stirred fears that it would “be deployed in an internal security role and not just for anti-piracy operations”.

Executive Outcomes, one of the most notorious private military contractors, was founded in 1989 by South Africans Eeben Barlow and Lafras Luitingh among others. Both men had worked for the Civil Cooperation Bureau, the apartheid government’s hit squad. Executive Outcomes employed many soldiers from recently disbanded SANDF special forces units.

Executive Outcomes and its front companies operated in Angola throughout the 1990s, according to a report by Chukwuma Osakwe of the Nigerian Defence Academy and Ubong Essien Umoh of the University of Uyo for Science Militaria journal in 2014. The Angolan government hired the firm to combat fighters loyal to the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola after it refused to accept the 1992 election results. Sierra Leone’s government also hired the group to fight against the Revolutionary United Front (RUF) from 1995 to 1997, according to the report.

Executive Outcomes also had close links to the British private military firm Sandline International. This group gained infamy after it was linked to the “Arms to Africa” scandal, a circumvention of a UN weapons embargo on Sierra Leone during the civil war in 1997, according to Khareen Pech, a researcher for the South African-based Institute for Security Studies (ISS), in a 1998 report.

Neither company exists today. Executive Outcomes dissolved in 1999 after South Africa adopted a law limiting mercenary activity, according to Pech. Sandline closed its doors in 2004, listing the reason on its company website as “the general lack of governmental support for private military companies willing to help end armed conflicts in places like Africa”.

Peter Singer, author of the 2007 book Corporate Warriors: The Rise of the Privatized Military Industry, divides modern private military contractors into three groups: first, firms supplying “direct, tactical military assistance” (including front-line combat); second, consulting companies that provide strategic training; and third, support businesses that provide logistics, maintenance and intelligence services.

Executive Outcomes and Sandline fell into the first category. The more common type operating today straddles the second and third categories. These firms provide training and logistical services to a variety of organisations, from private companies to national armies to NGOs operating in high-risk countries.

For example, former South African air force pilots, technicians and trainers form almost all of Rwanda’s air capability, according to Andre Roux, a senior ISS researcher. Angola today uses private military personnel extensively to develop its command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (C4ISR) capabilities, Roux said.

Since the 1990s, as the UN has launched more peacekeeping missions, especially in Africa, its use of private military firms has risen in parallel. The UN used LifeGuard — a South African company with ties to Executive Outcomes — to protect its personnel in Sierra Leone in 1998 before its blue helmets were officially deployed, wrote Åse Gilje Østensen in a 2011 report for the Geneva Centre for the Democratic Control of Armed Forces.

The UN subcontracts most of its mine-clearing operations to private firms, according to a November 2011 ISS study written by Eric George. The total value of de-mining operations throughout the world may be as much as $33-billion, George wrote, making it a very lucrative market for private military companies.

The UN is also increasingly contracting its support services, such as intelligence gathering and civilian policing, to these firms because it does not have the requisite expertise itself, according to Østensen.

Security training is another major service. For example, the UN hired DynCorp and PAE in 2004 to train and help restructure Liberia’s military and police sectors, according to George.

The US State Department also contracted PAE and DynCorp in the 2004 African Union (AU) mission to Sudan and the 2003 AU-UN mission to supply transport, logistics, communications and housing services in Darfur.

The use of private military companies raises difficult questions of accountability, because a hired private soldier answers first to his company, not to the state in which he is operating, George said. The question of accountability becomes even murkier when private firms, hired by governments or international organisations, subcontract out their assignments to other companies.

This issue arose when the UN hired DynCorp to support its peacekeeping efforts in Somalia and Sudan. In Somalia in 2006 the UN discovered that one of DynCorp’s subcontracted companies, Aerolift, a South African-based logistics firm, was allegedly delivering weapons to Islamist insurgents the Shabab, according to a 2010 report by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI).

In Sudan DynCorp subcontracted Badr Airline, which the UN accused of violating an arms embargo in 2006 by delivering pickup trucks mounted with machine guns to North Darfur in Sudan, according to a 2009 SIPRI report.

These cases underscore the lack of oversight and the absence of clear legislation regulating the activities of soldiers-for-hire and private military firms.

Some international regulation exists, including the UN’s 2001 International Convention against the Recruitment, Use, Financing and Training of Mercenaries. Under this treaty, signatory states are responsible for ensuring that no one engages in mercenary activity within their jurisdiction. But so far only 33 countries have ratified the treaty.

The 2008 Montreux Document, an inter-state agreement ratified by 17 countries, including the US, China, Britain, France and Germany, specifies a code of conduct for private military firms, according to Kateri Camola in a 2013 report for Professionals in Humanitarian Assistance and Protection, a research organisation based in Geneva.

The Montreux Document lists 70 ways in which signatories can ensure responsible use of private military contractors, according to a South African defence department research paper. These include not using contractors for activities requiring force, and licensing and regulating contracted companies. But the Montreux Document is only a set of guidelines and is not binding.

The International Code of Conduct for Private Security Service Providers is an inter-company agreement, signed by 708 private security firms across the world. It calls for private military and security companies and their employees to respect human rights and the rule of law in their operations.

Although well intentioned, this agreement suffers from the same shortcoming as the Montreux Document: it does not have the authority to penalise companies or their personnel who do not comply.

The only inter-African legislation governing the use of private military forces is the 1985 Organisation of African Unity (OAU) Convention for the Elimination of Mercenarism in Africa.

So far only 30 AU states have ratified the agreement, according to ISS senior researcher Sabelo Gumedze. This treaty similarly lacks teeth as it does not include any monitoring mechanisms, penalties or sanctions, according to Gumedze and other security experts.

South Africa is the only country in Africa that has passed domestic laws regulating the use of private armies: the 1998 Regulation of Foreign Military Assistance Act and the 2006 Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Regulation of Certain Activities in a Country of Armed Conflict Act.

South Africa used the 1998 law to convict Mark Thatcher, son of the late British prime minister, after he and several mercenaries, mostly South African citizens, attempted a coup d’état in Equatorial Guinea in 2004, according to court documents.

Thatcher pleaded guilty in 2005. He was fined $450 000 and received a four-year suspended sentence.

The absence of laws controlling these firms makes it difficult to punish private security firms and their employees when they misbehave. Issues related to jurisdiction often hobble prosecutors’ efforts to make arrests because a private military contractor may flee the country after committing a crime.

This is what happened after the UN accused Saracen personnel of human rights abuses in Somalia. It happened too in Sierra Leone, where Executive Outcomes employees allegedly killed civilians in indiscriminate airstrikes between 1995 and 1997, according to Messrs Osakwe and Umoh. In both cases, no one was prosecuted, either in Sierra Leone or Somalia or in their home countries.

While criticism of these private armies is legitimate, some observers argue that they can play a useful role, but away from the front line. They have the skills and experience to deliver professional specialised services to governments that lack the resources or expertise to perform these tasks.

A private firm that specialises in military logistics will have more access to heavy-airlift infrastructure than an African government that needs these services for a one-off operation. In the same way, a contractor that provides dedicated mine-clearing services will have better trained and equipped staff than a national army that has a diffuse variety of responsibilities.

Thembani Mbadlanyana, an ISS researcher, promotes what he calls the “steering and rowing” approach. Under this method, the employer — the government or international body — “steers” by providing direction, policy and oversight for a specific operation and makes sure that it is well executed. The private security firm “rows” by delivering a specific service.

Steering requires understanding the various issues and balancing the competing demands for resources, he argues, a common government function. Rowing requires the competence to carry out a specific mission, which should fall under the expertise of an experienced private firm.

Private armies can play a valuable role on the continent, but only when international law regulates their responsibilities and ensures their accountability. A first step would be for governments to establish clear rules governing the registration and licensing of private military companies. This requires ongoing monitoring of their activities, according to the 2013 UN report.

Rules to ensure security trainers do not participate in combat operations, as well as thorough background checks to make sure that the firms’ personnel do not have criminal records, would also improve the private security environment. This could include laws that establish corporate criminal responsibility for contractors who operate beyond their legal mandates.

These companies are here to stay. The international community and national governments need to mitigate the inherent threats they pose by adopting strong laws that monitor and regulate and by punishing them when these laws are broken.

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